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Top Hat co-founder and chief executive officer Mike Silagadze pictured in Toronto on June 30, 2020.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

When education technology company Top Hat launched 11 years ago, co-founder and chief executive officer Mike Silagadze saw a future for post-secondary education transformed by digital content.

Over the past decade, the Toronto-based company, officially known as Tophatmonocle Corp., has been building its educational platform and an array of digital content. Earlier this year, the company had three million post-secondary students using its products in five different countries and more than 400 employees.

While their largest market is North America, Top Hat also has users in the United Kingdom, Australia and Italy.

Then the spread of COVID-19 forced institutions around the world to close their doors and open their laptops to deliver courses online.

“We’ve seen a tremendous acceleration in people’s willingness to embrace technology to create an active learning environment,” Mr. Silagadze says.

Many post-secondary institutions and faculty already offered online courses or blended learning opportunities. Others struggled.

“Some schools were basically trying to deliver that same experience, the sage-on-the-stage-talking-at-you-for-an-hour model of learning, but they’re trying to do that through Zoom or whatever conferencing tool. It was a disaster,” Mr. Silagadze says.

“Honestly, it never worked in the first place, pre-COVID, but now it’s particularly bad because students don’t have the on-campus, student life environment to supplement the fact that their learning environment is so sub-par.”

Mr. Silagadze forecasts a “reckoning” for institutions that don’t innovate.

Top Hat has moved quickly to accelerate the rollout of new products to meet increased interest for its offerings. Since the lockdown began in March, the company has introduced a remote proctoring tool to ensure secure exams in an online environment, a community chat function and soon a virtual classroom video-conferencing tool optimized for a post-secondary environment.

Next month, the company plans to release a free version of its platform, alongside a pro version with all the bells and whistles.

“In this environment, you either have to adapt or die,” Mr. Silagadze says. “There is no alternative to just keep doing what you were doing before.”

Top Hat provides more than a platform for lectures. It provides post-secondary educators tools to curate their own content for a new generation of digital-native students, including their own digital textbooks with interactive features such as video, assessments, and polling.

“It’s a much more engaging experience and gives real-time feedback on what they’re doing,” Mr. Silagadze says.

Clare Brett, chair of the department of curriculum, teaching and learning in the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto, says there has been a lot of uptake of online education in Canada’s post-secondary landscape. There have also been institutions that are less enthusiastic, she says.

But she says plenty of research has dispelled the idea that online learning is not as good as in-person.

“Just like a face-to-face class, you have to design it well,” Dr. Brett says. “And if you do that, you get good learning and people have good experiences.”

The OISE already had a good portion of online programming, but some facilities had to ramp up very quickly.

“It went pretty well, actually, given the size of the shift,” she says.

The OISE has also been offering peer support for university faculty and workshops for K-to-12 teachers forced online.

“People are thinking and talking about their teaching and that’s a good thing,” Dr. Brett says. “Instead of it just being a thing that you do, you’re forced to reimagine what it is that really matters to you in teaching this course.”

For the immediate future, at least, virtual classrooms will be the only option, Dr. Brett says, and that raises the question of equitable access.

“The equity and diversity and inclusion aspect of the online space are very worrying because they parallel what we see in health outcomes,” she says. “You look at particular parts of cities, with lower-than-average incomes, communities of colour, immigrant communities, and they don’t necessarily have the same level of access to technology.”

There will be a lot to learn from this forced experiment in digital education, Dr. Brett adds.

“I’m hoping there will be a lot of innovations that come out of this, not just in tools but in how people organize educational experiences.”

At Top Hat, the need to prove the value of an online platform is no longer necessary, says its chief technology officer Bhavin Shah. He says the focus is on high-quality content and using digital data to provide insight into student engagement.

Top Hat uses outside-source tools that are then integrated into their platform. For example, the company didn’t design its own proctoring tool, but instead incorporated an existing tool from a software partner.

“We don’t want to rebuild a lot of the underlying infrastructure that’s needed,” Mr. Shah says. “That is part of the reason we’re able to move quickly. We’re not trying to build the pipes that allow high-quality bandwidth transfer and video-streaming.”

Top Hat tools such as in-class discussions, polling and tracking pre-class preparation work provide a lot of insight to educators, Mr. Shah says.

“Traditionally, as an educator, you may know whether or not a student came to class and how they performed on the test, but there’s all this other homework and reading. Exams are just lagging indicators,” he says. “It’s now mid-term time, halfway through, and that’s the first time you get a checkpoint on how your students are doing. Our goal is to make this information available early so you can help students much earlier on.”

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